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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Old Guard Versus New Guard: Bridging The Gap

Judy Nadler

This fictional case illustrates some of the challenges facing newly appointed city managers. We welcome your comments and observations.

After serving 25 years as a quiet and low-key city manager of Longworth, Anthony McNerney decided it was time to retire. Under his stewardship the city had grown to 17,000, and he was especially proud that despite the inevitable changes that came over time, the city still retained a small-town feeling, an old-fashioned Main Street, and “the friendliest people in the state.”

During his tenure, the five-member city council had almost always been in agreement, and they endorsed virtually all of his recommendations. Few people attended the council meetings because they were, as one councilmember said, “short and sweet, and no political heat.”

In deciding how to replace McNerney the council called upon the state municipal league for recommendations. The council interviewed six candidates to serve as interim city manager, and chose Greg Holman. A recent graduate in public policy from a prestigious university, he had served as a deputy city manager for two years before moving to a larger city to become assistant city manager. He was now hoping to be selected to the top job in Longworth.

Holman not only had impressive credentials, but he was also well-connected with managers in other cities and had a reputation for involving the community in the decision-making process. He went out of his way to visit local businesses, held two “open office” receptions to meet the public, and scheduled one-on-one sessions for the top administrators. It was clear he had made a positive connection with the city council, so after just four months, he was unanimously appointed city manager.

His energy and enthusiasm was a boost to the community. The president of the Chamber of Commerce called him “a breath of fresh air,” and an editorial in the local newspaper predicted Holman would take the city “to the next level.” The editor highlighted the need to move “into this century” and to praised the council for choosing a city manager who would organize, streamline, and energize the city.

As he went about studying various city policies, Holman found a document marked “city manager’s suggestions, ” but he could not find a formal code of ethics. After checking with the city attorney he learned the council was under the general oversight of the state ethics commission, as were all the cities in the state. But it concerned him that there were no formal rules for the employees; they were to use “common sense” when making decisions.

His worry grew after reading files pertaining to gifts and free tickets received by the employees, unauthorized use of city equipment, and a host of other actions that would be considered ethics violations, putting the council and employees at risk. It became obvious that the pattern was to “look the other way,” a policy Holman was determined to change.

After outlining his concern about the lack of an ethics code and suggesting this be a priority project, several department leaders decided to retire rather than take on this initiative. “I’ve worked here 17 years,” said planning director Gail Shepherd, “and I just don’t have the energy to take on anything new.” Several others senior employees, including the city attorney also opted for retirement. “Call me old-fashioned,” the city auditor joked, “but I like things just the way they are.”

There was some apprehension when Holman brought in replacement staff, all equally enthusiastic about the goal of creating a values-based code of ethics for Longworth . The majority of city employees decided to wait before making a judgment, yet the council remained solidly behind Holman and excited about the ethics project.

A year into his “honeymoon” period Holman got the shock of his life – former city manager McNerney decided to run for an open seat on the council, with the intention of returning things in Longworth “back to normal.” McNerney bragged that everything done under his leadership was positive, and all the changes Holman had implemented he criticized as “ruining a perfectly good city.” His campaign slogan was “Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”

The city council and staff found themselves torn – they felt loyalty to and affection for McNerney, but optimism and confidence in the direction of Holman and his new team.

McNerney won in an uncontested election, and was determined to undo some administrative changes and take control of the council majority. Holman had to come up with a strategy that could bridge the old and the new, while keeping a positive work environment and satisfied citizens. He was determined to create an ethics code, but he also needed to find a way to keep his job.

Discussion questions:

How should Holman approach McNerney now that he is a member of the city council?

What should Holman do in light of the harsh criticism leveled against him during the campaign?Should he ignore it or try to address some of the disparaging accusations?

Would it be appropriate for Holman to ask the former city manager for clarification of the troubling policies or would this create more problems?

How can Holman smooth things over after the election, preventing McNerney from being an obstacle and bridging the gap between the two camps?

Would it be worthwhile to hire an outside consultant specializing in team building and goal setting?

Sep 27, 2011
Government Ethics Stories